Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Great and Powerful Oz Read Through: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Part 1

My goal in 2013 is to read all 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. You didn't know there was more than one Oz book? Well, there is, and they are weird and delightful. I've only read two of the books, though I know a bit about them from friends and essays. I missed out on this wonderful series during my childhood (too busy reading Peter Pan over and over again) so I'm reading them now, and adding my commentary, which ranges from squeeing over how enchanting the story is to going "what the hell, that is terrifying" to actual critique. Spoilers ahead for a book published in 1900.

The American Dream

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an American fairy tale. We see the good guys are hard workers, and hard work makes you successful. All the Tin Woodman wants is to earn enough money to build a home for his bride-to-be who has specifically told him she will agree to marry him when he can provide a home. He gets to work chopping the wood that will make his home. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears are going into this house he plans to build. And time! First he has to earn the money, and then he has to build the house. He's also obviously dedicated the woman he loves because building a home is no small condition. Doing it by himself is admirable. It's that American idea of getting everything you have without help from someone higher up the ladder, which of course isn't possible, but I think it is displayed in the story of the Tin Woodman.

The villains impede the rewards of hard work. Tin Woodman relates his story:

But the girl lived with an old woman who did not want her to marry anyone, for she was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework. So the old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, and promised her two sheep and a cow if she would prevent the marriage. Thereupon the Wicked Witch enchanted my ax, and when I was chopping away at my best one day, for I was anxious to get the new house and my wife as soon as possible, the ax slipped all at once and cut off my left leg.

Tin Woodman has the tinsmith make him a new leg, and then goes back to chopping wood. This makes the Wicked Witch angry because she promised the old woman she would stop the marriage. She enchants Tin Woodman's ax to cut off body parts until he is split in two, and must have his entire body made out of tin, which of course means he has no heart, and thus loses his love for the Munchkin girl. He supposes the girl still lives with the old woman, and waits for him. That's quite a romantic notion for a man without a heart who claims to have no emotion.

I wonder about the Wicked Witch's anger when the Tin Woodman keeps on going after he loses his leg. He says she is angry because she made a promise, but I don't see why an evil witch would care about promises. I also don't see why the ruler of Munchkinland would see two sheep and a cow as sufficient payment. To me it feels like a fairy tale trope turned around. Instead of a person in dire need making a deal with terms set by a witch, the old woman sets the terms of trade. The witch is the one held to a contract, so in fairy tale terms that means she should lose something if she can't keep her end of the bargain. There isn't any mention of the Witch having anything to lose, so I'll settle for it being a fun reversal of a fairy tale trope.

But the American Dream plays into this because nothing can get Tin Woodman down. Even after he loses his leg, he keeps going. His hard work gives him the money to fix his leg. Loss of his limb is a setback, but the ultimate goal is still in sight. It isn't until he loses his heart that he gives up. Without a heart, the pursuit of happiness doesn't have any appeal. Those who have read the book know Tin Woodman is a very emotional character even without a heart, and I'll address that in a future post.

The Wizard of Capitalism

When Dorothy and company approach Oz for help, he can provide something to each member of the party, but insists on payment. Dorothy and co. have individual meetings with Oz, and in turn all ask for their greatest desire. Oz asks each of them why he should give them what they want, and all four of them say it is because Oz is the only one with the power to do so. Our heroes believe Oz is divine. They think he should use his power for good, to help and heal, just because he can.

But it turns out Oz is an ordinary man. Perhaps less than ordinary because he is a liar and a coward. Instead of using his powers for good, he requires payment in return for his services. Appearing to Dorothy as a giant head, Oz says:

"Well," said the Head, "I will give you my answer. You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return. In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets. If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first. Help me and I will help you."

He implores her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, which she reluctantly agrees to when Oz will not grant any requests unless his is met. The Witch captures Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are torn apart and scattered far away by the flying monkeys. The Witch makes Dorothy a slave, and locks Lion up in a cage and starves him because he refuses to pull her chariot. Dorothy sneaks him food at night. This arrangement goes on for an unspecified length of time.

Dorothy went to work meekly, with her mind made up to work as hard as she could; for she was glad the Wicked Witch had decided not to kill her.

Dorothy still retains a strong work ethic even when she is a slave. She and Lion try to plan an escape, but they don't think they can get past the Winkies, the citizens the Wicked Witch has enslaved. They remain at the castle, growing more and more depressed, until the Witch steals one of Dorothy's Silver Shoes. (Dorothy's famous shoes are silver in the book. They were changed to red in the 1939 film to take advantage of Technicolor.) Dorothy finally reacts with anger.

The little girl, seeing she had lost one of her pretty shoes, grew angry, and said to the Witch, "Give me back my shoe!"

"I will not," retorted the Witch, "for it is now my shoe, and not yours."

"You are a wicked creature!" cried Dorothy. "You have no right to take my shoe from me."

"I shall keep it, just the same," said the Witch, laughing at her, "and someday I shall get the other one from you, too."

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Dorothy shows more anger when the Witch steals a possession--something she earned--than she does when her freedom is violated. It is her desire to keep what she owns that allows her to free herself from the Witch. That American Dream is at it again.

The group returns to the Wizard, who turns out to be a fake, but eventually keeps his end of the bargain. I'll talk about his methods and results in my next post when I break down the personalities of Dorothy and friends.

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